Comparisons of the Armies


The French Forces

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Chassepot rifle



 The MLE 1866 Chassepot.

A Needle Gun, and one of the 1st bolt

action rifles ever produced.



 Testing Chassepot Needle Rifle Cartouches


1867 French Chassepot Rifle Bayonet


492,585 active  417,366 Garde Mobile

The French Army comprised approximately 400,000 regular soldiers, some of them veterans of the Crimean War, Algeria, Second Italian War of Independence ( 1859 ), and in Mexico supporting the Second Mexican Empire . This strength would increase to 662,000 on full mobilisation with the recall of reservists, with another 400,000 in the loosely organised Garde Mobile, which would require time to train. Unlike the Prussians, who relied on universal conscription, the French relied on long serving professional army . There were also at the time about 60,000 French troops in Algeria . A soldier signed on for a seven year term and was offered bonuses to reenlist . The French thought their veterans would be better in the field than the green recruits of the Prussian army. The French soldiers had many weaknesses such as lack of discipline and alcoholism .


The mitrailleuse



 An animation of the Reffye Mitrailleuse of 1867. Multi-barrel Mitrailleuse (grapeshot shooters) were originally developed in Belgium in 1851. The Reffye Mitrailleuse, developed for the French Army in 1865, had 25 barrels and fired 13mm bullets. Firing rate was between 75 and 125 rounds per minute; the animation shows the rather cumbersome loading and firing process. France fielded 190 Reffye Mitrailleuse during the Franco-Prussian war (1870-72) but the tactical use of these machine guns had not been worked out, and they were rarely used effectively.



The mitrailleuse was a precursor to the modern machine gun,developed from the American Gatling. The desire to keep it a secret meant that few French soldiers were instructed in its use. It weighed about 1750 lbs and required a team of six horses to transport it.


The Chassepot rifle and the mitrailleuse

After Prussian soldiers breech-loading  needle rifles ( zundnadelgewehr) in 1866 at the battle of Koniggratz had decimated the Austrians using muzzle-loaders, the French had hastily equipped their infantry with the Chassepot rifle, one of the most modern mass-produced firearms in the world at the time. The Chassepot was designed by Antonie Chassepot in 1866 and was superior to the outdated Prussian Dreyse rifle. The Chassepot had an effective range of 1,500 yards and could fire 8 to 15 rounds a minute while the Dreyse could only fire 4 or 5 rounds a minute . The bullets of the Chassepot were smaller than the Dreyse, but had more penetrating power .The Chassepot used a rubber ring seal to prevent sparks and smoke from being emitted .


 The French also had one of the world's first machine gun, the mitrailleuse which could fire 100-200 rounds a minute. Because of the novelty of the weapon and lack of experience of its use, it was mounted on an artillery gun carriage and grouped in batteries in a similar fashion to cannon.


French uniforms  Illustrated Journal 1870

French colonial soldiers from North Africa, Ghoums and Spahis


 The French Army of the Franco-Prussian War

 A great illustrated reference on the history, organisation,

uniforms and equipment of the French Army



With these two weapons, why did the French not sweep the Prussians from the field as the Prussians had at Koniggratz ? One reason was is that they did not use these weapons effectively. The French battle plan was to mass men in a defensive position and deliver a withering wall of fire -  the feu de bataillon . French commanders were not given much leeway in the battlefields as the Prussian officers had, who could improvise better. The Prussians swarmed their open with attacks of smaller groups of men from many different positions seeking to outflank the enemy . The Prussians also negated the French superiority of their rifles with their superior breech-loading steel Krupp cannons  .


The artillery could not be re-equipped as the money was not voted by the Assembly, and was still equipped with muzzle-loading, although rifled, Lahitte '4-pounder' (actual weight of shot: 4 kg / 8.4 lb) guns, with an effective range of 2,800 metres . The French also tended to mass their artillery in the field, while the Prussians were much more mobile with their artillery .




The French railway system was not as organized for war compared to the Prussians . The Prussians had a special staff to plan and synchronize the movement of troops .




The Prussians had reformed their cavalry service, no longer letting it be the field of the elite, but opening it up to advancement by merit and using it for skirmishing and screening . The French still made use of heavy cavalry with the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War had shown to be outdated with the longer range of rifles and cannons .


The army was nominally led by Napoleon III. Marshals Bazaine, MacMahon and Canrobert were initially selected to command field armies. They and many of their subordinates had gained high reputations for bravery and leadership in the Crimean War, Franco-Austrian War and colonial wars in Algeria.


In practice, the French army, which had undertaken urgent reforms as a result of the outcome and lessons of the Austro-Prussian War, was nevertheless crippled by its poor administration and lack of coherent planning. Although the French Chief of Staff, Maréchal Edmond Leboeuf (1809 - 1888 ), had stated that the French Army was ready for war, "down to the last gaiter button", as the fighting began, many of its formations were under strength as 100,000 reservists were living hand-to-mouth at depots and railway stations as they tried to find their regiments; and among various deficiencies in supplies and equipment, most of the medical supplies were still at the Invalides in Paris, awaiting transport. Throughout the war, the movements of French formations were to be badly directed and confused .


The Navies

At the beginning of the war, the French could claim to have one of the best navies in the world . It had pioneered new developments in steam, shell-guns and armor . It had 49 ironclads and 9 corvettes armed with 16cm and 19cm guns . The largest French ironclad was the Rochambeau, purchased from America . Against this the Prussians only had 5 ironclads. The Konig Wilhelm,which remained in port during the war, was more powerful than the French ironclads . When the war began, the French government ordered a blockade of the North German coasts, which the small North German navy (Norddeutsche Bundesmarine) with only five ironclads could do little to oppose. When the war broke out, most of the French navy was used to transport troops from Algeria to France. The was a planned seaborne invasion of the German North Sea coast, but the newly installed Krupp coastal guns and garrison troops of about 90,000 in the Hamburg Bremen area caused these plans to be shelved .

The French Marines were sent to the French army of Chalons and many of them were captured at Sedan.


The French Ironclad Rochambeau, formerly the USS Dunderberg

French gunboat on the Seine, Paris



SMS König Wilhelm, Prussian armored frigate, built in the UK in 1865 .


Illustration of The Battle of Havana on November 9, 1870 was a single ship action between the German gunboat Meteor and the French aviso (dispatch boat) Bouvet off the coast of Havana, Cuba. The battle came to an inconclusive end when the Bouvet, which had closed the range in an attempt to board the Meteor, suffered damage to a steam pipe which knocked out her propulsion and was forced to retreat into neutral waters under sail, whereupon she came under the protection of Spain once again. Neither ship was permanently disabled, mostly suffering damage to masts and rigging .


The German Forces



Prussia was not a country with an army, but an army with a country

              Friedrich Freiherr von Schrötte, Prussian  minister


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Dreyse "needle-gun" rifle



 The Dreyse needle gun in action at the Battle of Königgrätz (German)



 Shooting the Dreyse M.41

The Prussian Army was composed not of regulars but conscripts and reservists. Service was compulsory for all men of military age, thus Prussia and its North and South German allies could mobilize and field some 1.2 million soldiers in time of war, which it did within 18 days of mobilization. The sheer number of soldiers available made possible the mass-encirclement and destruction of entire enemy formations. Every able bodied man had to serve in the army for three years, then he was released to the reserves for four years and after that he was on call to the national guard for five more years . Compared to the French, the Prussian soldiers were better educated with compulsory primary education that was not the law in France till after the war . An estimated 33,100 officers and 1,113,000 men took part in the war .

A breech loading 1000 pounder Krupp gun.

This won a prize for Krupp at the Great

Exhibition of Paris in 1867

The army was still equipped with the Dreyse "needle-gun" rifle of fame from the Battle of Königgrätz which was by this time showing the age of its 25 year old design. The deficiencies of the needle-gun were more than compensated for by the famous Krupp 6 pounder (3 kg) breech-loading cannons being issued to Prussian artillery batteries. Firing a contact-detonated shell filled with zinc balls and explosive, the Krupp gun had a range of 4,500 meters and blistering rate of fire compared to muzzle loading cannon. The war saw the first use of anti-aircraft artillery, a Krupp piece built specifically to shoot down the hot air balloons being used by the French as couriers.

Helmuth von Moltke ( 1800 - 1891 )

The Prussian army was nominally commanded by the King, William I. Royal and noble officers such as the Crown Prince Frederick commanded the major formations. In practice, all operations were directed by the General Staff under Field-Marshal Helmuth von Moltke. The Prussian army was unique in Europe for having the only General Staff in existence, whose sole purpose was to direct operational movement, organise logistics and communications and develop the overall war strategy.

A German ammunition train

Albumen photograph of a Prussian soldier

General Staff officers, who had undergone rigorous selection procedures and training performed similar functions at all major headquarters. A Chief of Staff was a much more important figure in the Prussian Army than in any other army, because he had the right to appeal against his superior to the commander of the next highest formation. Thus, for example, the Crown Prince was unable to contradict the advice of his Chief of Staff, General von Blumenthal, for fear of a direct appeal (in this case) to his father the King.

The German cavalry- the uhlan


Uhlans with their distinctive mortarboard top Pickelhaube

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The term uhlan comes from the Polish for light cavalry armed with lances, sabers and pistols. The title was later used by lancer regiments in the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian armies. Uhlans were tasked with shadowing passenger balloons launched from the city: their capacity for rapid movement made Uhlans the only troops able to keep pace with the balloons.

Given that France maintained a strong standing army, and that Prussia and the other German states would need weeks to mobilise their reserves, the French held the initial advantage of troop numbers and experience. French tactics emphasized the defensive use of the Chassepot rifle in trench-warfare style fighting; German tactics emphasized encirclement battles and using artillery offensively whenever possible.


Uniforms of Prussian soldiers.

Upper right is a uniform of the Death Head Hussars.


Prussian nurses

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French nurse

A French Vivandière or Cantinière, women attached to military

regiments as sutlers or canteen keepers.


 Causes of the Franco Prussian War &

 A brief history of the Franco Prussian War